The volume of low acuity patients in the ER is not a myth

I had an interesting twitter chat the other day with one of my colleagues, a young ER grad studying healthcare policy by the name of Seth Trueger. The Twitter conversation wound up involving about a dozen ER docs and nurses. You can review an edited summary over at Storify.

The point in contention is an interesting one: we know the nation’s ERs are overwhelmed and overcrowded. That’s old news. We also know a big driver of this is boarding of admitted patients in the ER due to limited inpatient beds. If you’re a 20-bed ER and you’re boarding 5 patients, you’ve lost 25% of your throughput capacity. Common sense that this is a big issue. But, the argument hinged on, what is the contribution of the proportion of ER patients who “don’t need to be there,” the patients whose care could have better been delivered elsewhere?

There was, I hasten to add, no disagreement as to why the “worried well” and the “walking wounded” come to the ER. PCPs are too busy to see them, both because their clinics are booked up and also because they often don’t have the resources to provide much in the way of acute care services — IVs, nursing staff, etc. In part this is because it may not be economical to provide this care in the office. Furthermore, most medical offices are only open during working hours and acute care centers are only slightly more accessible. There are also many patient-side barriers, including the hassle involved in making an appointment, the need for co-pays and insurance status. So, given the many obstacles involved in getting care in the more appropriate, most cost-effective settings, the ER becomes the default for many of these patients.

Now Seth argued at some length, that these low-acuity, ambulatory care patients were “a drop in the bucket” of ER overcrowding and cited the example of the ubiquitous URI patient who can be seen and streeted in less than 20 minutes. These folks, he and others argued, are not the problem that our nation’s ERs struggle with. This is, I might add, in line with ACEP’s argument that only 7% of ER patients are non-emergent.

I have pointed out in the past that my BS-meter starts pinging when people start claiming that the ER is only caring for emergent patients and that non-emergency cases are rare. So this set me off, of course. My perception — and that of many of us in the trenches — is that we are absolutely beset by non-emergencies and that the ER is viewed by many as the “convenience clinic,” if not the “vicodin clinic.” But is this true? How can we quantify this?

ACEP has, for their PR campaign, relied on the National Health Statistics Report to establish whether a patient in the ER was actually an “emergency.” The problem with that method is that it takes the 5-point triage scale perhaps a bit more literally than the typical triage nurse does. To the point, it considers a level 4 “green” patient to still be an emergency since the definition of that level is that a patient needs to be seen in 1-2 hours. Which is not at all the way it is applied in the real world.

In this case, I would advocate using the coded level of service by the ER physician to stratify patients. Low acuity probably correlates nicely with the E/M code applied. The lower-level ER codes, level 1, 2 and 3 tend to be associated with not being admitted to the hospital, with not receiving advanced imaging studies like CT scans and with not receiving complex work-ups with blood tests, CT scans and X-rays. Put simply, an ER patient level 3 or lower may receive one or two ancillary tests (like a simple x-ray or a single lab test) but not much else before they get bumped into the level 4 range. So a level 3 patient is one that generally is simple and hopefully quick and one who, in theory, could have been cared for elsewhere were an appropriate care environment available.

So I pulled our numbers. Our ER is a pretty typical, moderately high-acuity community ER. We seen nearly 300 patients every day, and of those about 20% get admitted to the hospital. Our numbers indicate that we see about 100 patients every day who fit this definition, about 1/3 of the total volume and about 45% of the non-admitted volume.

Is this “a drop in the bucket”? Are these patients who we should be seeing and streeting in 20 minutes? Put simply, the answer is no.

When I look at the time stamps on the charts of these patients, it’s clear that they are not in and out of the ER all that fast. It’s all relative, of course, and your mileage may vary. We have a very efficient ER. We don’t board patients and our average door-to-bed time is about 15 minutes. Pretty good. But for the majority of patients who are not admitted, the typical time in the ER is still in the 1-3 hour range:

The volume of low acuity patients in the ER is not a myth

The lower-acuity patients are there less time, it is true. About 1-2 hours on average.  Why so long?

There are two factors at play here. First of all is the fallacy that just because a patient is easy and quick from the physician’s point of view, they are also quick and easy for the facility. But unfortunately, the many steps which a patient must go through in the ER are fixed and take about the same amount of time for each and every patient. Let’s use our shop’s numbers for perspective. The patient must present at the greet desk and be entered into the system, must be placed in a bed, must be triaged, must be registered, and there are often obligate waiting periods between each step. In a highly efficient ER, where patients are bedded rapidly, much of this takes place in the treatment area. Then the doctor swoops in, does his or her black magic and is gone. If there are orders or treatments to be applied, that takes time from when the orders are entered to when they are executed. Eventually, the physician enters a discharge order, and after some time, the patient is actually discharged. Each step in this process takes time. So from door to bed: 15 minutes. The triage process itself takes a good ten minutes (bear in mind all the irrelevant data points ERs are required to capture, like domestic abuse screening, etc). The patient must be registered, which takes another 5-10 minutes. Then there is a waiting period until the doctor gets in to see the patient. That’s another 5-10 minutes. So we are talking 30-45 minutes even before the doctor assesses the patient, on average. Assuming the doctor has no orders, the time from the decision to discharge to the actual discharge may be another 15 minutes, depending on nursing workload. So in a typical case where the doctor’s face time is very minimal and there are zero orders entered, the process phase of the ER visit takes an entire hour! This is, I might add, a “best case” for an ER visit. (Bear in mind that we are talking average times here. So for each person who comes in at 5AM and is seen immediately there’s one who comes in at 7PM and has to wait twice as long.)

The second fallacy at play is the idea that a low-acuity patient is in fact a low workload patient. Seth cited the URI patient. Nothing faster from the MD’s point of view. In our department, that represents about 4% of patients. That’s maybe 15% of the total low acuity patient load. What are the other typical level 1-3 patients here for? Well, based on our ICD-9 coding, in rough order of frequency, things like:

  • Back pain
  • Headache
  • UTI
  • Neck Strain
  • Minor head injury
  • URI/Bronchitis/Pharyngitis/Sinusitis
  • Extremity Cellulitis
  • Laceration
  • Dental pain
  • Extremity sprains/strains/contusions
  • Pediatric fever (non-infant)
  • Abscesses
  • Corneal Abrasions
  • Rashes
  • Allergic reactions

A lot of these are, in fact, not at all easy from a time point of view. Abscesses/lacerations/corneal abrasions all take physician time doing procedures (and associated set-up time, etc). The musculoskeletal injuries often require imaging and splinting. The back pain/headache/cellulitis often require medication administration. Concussions and toddlers with fevers may not require tests but do consume a lot of physician time face-to-face. Some of these cases require multiple physician assessments. Some require labs. Each additional step adds time, sometimes quite a lot of time, to that one-hour best case baseline I described.

So what’s the total time burden?

Our experience is that for the ambulatory population, i.e. excluding admitted patients, we have about 510 patient-hours per day in our ER. Of this, almost exactly a third, 160 patient-hours is attributable to the lowest-acuity patients, the E/M level 1-3s. That correlates also to nearly a third of physician staffing and RN staffing. Bear in mind that our institution just built a whole new hospital at a cost of $500 million, in part because the ER needed a much larger physical plant. The costs involved in this care are not insignificant, and the burden placed on the nation’s ERs from these less acute cases is major, not at all a drop in the bucket.

I want to take a moment here that I am not commenting on whether these patients should be in the ER. In the current healthcare environment, they haveto be here because there is nowhere else to go as often as not. And many of these cases will always be with us: if you have neck pain after a car accident at 2am, the ER is the right place to be treated, even if it winds up being just a sprain. We embrace our role as the care provider of last resort, the ones who are always open and always available, no matter what. It is also true, however, that we are an expensive place to receive care. The fixed costs of operating an ER are horrendous, compared to a clinic. Our health care system would be far better served if there were accessible sites of care that could care for these less intense patients in a more cost effective manner.

“Shadowfax” is an emergency physician who blogs at Movin’ Meat.

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  • http://twitter.com/adandersen Aaron Andersen

    Well said. In addition, not a shift goes by that one of those lower triage codes is actually mis-triaged. Or, even if they have a low acuity complaint, in an urban ED, they have a BP of 270/130 that needs further assessment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1536833852 Rick Lundgren

    Out primary care physician organization is actually rated by payers on how well we keep people out of the ED. While there are a number of urgent cares in the area, not are in the same building or even across the street from ED’s. Haven’t studies shown that encorporating both and ED and UC into the same system decreased this?

  • http://www.facebook.com/hcberkowitz Howard C. Berkowitz

    Here on Cape Cod, Cape Cod Hospital has improved ER efficiency by creating several acuity “zoned” rooms, but it’s still frustrating when I know I don’t need full ER services, yet it will take me 3 weeks to see my PCP, and the local UC facilities close at 5. I’m arguing a copayment where I needed parenteral antibiotics but couldn’t get them as an outpatient — and in any event was later admitted after three consecutive-day ER copays.

    Understandably, one has to develop procedures for the general patient. It is frustrating, however, to know that I could have handled my own IM or IV (well, assuming a heplock) meds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1536821513 Edwin Leap

    Shadowfax, great points. I agree. Those patients are in the ED a while, and often because we simply can’t get to them while taking care of the sicker folks. Likewise, sometimes simple tests take a very long time due to inefficiencies in radiology or lab processes. Finally, and it’s not very PC, the plain truth is that some (who don’t really need a physician at all) understand EMTALA and know that there is no cost up front….and none on the end if you give a bad address and phone number. I know, I’m a bad doctor for saying it, but the truth remains.

  • lemaman

    when I pick up 3-4 patients at a time and one may be treat and street, it will still be an hour before they are gone because I still have to see the others who are more acute and then get back to the documentation and d/c. multifactorial for sure, but no such animal exists as the in and out nonemergent ER patient. Great points, thanks for putting this out there.

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